If there’s one thing that’s the same across most offices in the U.S. and Europe, it’s "cake culture." The term is used to describe the plethora of sweet treats commonly found in workplaces, from a bowl of M&M’s on the HR officer’s desk, to George from accounting’s homemade brownies in the office kitchen, to that box of Krispy Kreme donuts the boss brings to kick off morning meetings in the conference room.
While all well-intentioned, this workplace cake culture is hurting employee health, professor Nigel Hunt, dean of the Faculty of Dental Surgery at the Royal College of Surgeons, has warned.
"Managers want to reward staff for their efforts, colleagues want to celebrate special occasions, and workers want to bring back a gift from their holidays. But for many people the workplace is now the primary site of their sugar intake and is contributing to the current obesity epidemic and poor oral health," Hunt says. "It is particularly dangerous that this is lying around the office all day, for as we know, sugar has a particularly negative effect if it's eaten outside of meal time," he explains.
"Cake culture also poses difficulties for those who are trying their hardest to lose weight or become healthier," says Hunt. "How many of us have begun such diets, only to cave in to the temptation of the doughnuts, cookies, or the triple chocolate biscuits?" he asks.
That’s something Kimi Sokhi, a holistic nutritionist and hypnotherapist, and a certified workplace wellness ambassador and wellness officer at Expo 2020 Dubai, agrees with. "There’s definitely a sense of comradeship in eating our meals with our teammates or enthusiastically accepting the homemade cookies that a colleague brings in," Sokhi says. "Peer pressure and the need to appear polite and agreeable can’t be underestimated," she explains. "After all, what sort of heartless person says no to homemade cookies? Who refuses to eat a slice of cake when a teammate becomes a new dad?"
This social aspect of sharing food has been hardwired into us for centuries. "We break bread together as a way to celebrate, mourn, and bond with one another," says Sokhi. "So when a colleague brings in cookies, there are a lot of factors at play that make us reach for that chocolate chip treat."
But Sokhi also says cake culture is influenced by the habits of our employers, like those who bring the Krispy Kremes to morning meetings. "We tend to subconsciously pick up the habits of those around us," she says. "So if we spend the majority of our time with people that use a lot of swear words, chances are we’ll be doing the same after a few weeks or even days." Or those who eat those original glazed the boss brings in.
In other words, a single employee’s willpower to say "no" to sweet treats in the office is only part of the equation to defeating cake culture. If other employees regularly munch on the boss's sweet treats, you probably soon will too.
This comes at a time when employers' wellness programs such as reimbursement for weight loss programs or quitting smoking are on the decline, according to a survey by the Society of Human Resource Management. That’s why health experts such as Hunt and Sokhi are calling for a more healthy workplace spearheaded by employer policies, consigning cake culture to the same fate as in-office smoking. And getting there only takes small, incremental changes.
This is Sokhi’s number one piece of advice. While good intentions are appreciated, change takes action, and the only way you can turn your workplace into a truly healthy one is by integrating a healthy workplace culture into the fabric of the company.
"If you want a healthy workforce, you have to make it a priority," says Sokhi. "Have a wellness strategy that’s written down and shared with the entire company," she suggests. "Make sure you have buy-in from your C-suite. Get them on board by showing them the ROI of investing in workplace wellness."
Next, says Sokhi, "Tackle the pressing health issues that affect your employees by educating and empowering them, while supporting those positive changes through company policies and the physical environment that they work in."
Whether you’re a Fortune 500 company with a cafeteria that feeds your workforce, or a small business where your food contribution only includes providing snacks for meetings, Sokhi says simple changes to the types of foods you provide could have a big impact on employee health. Swap mac and cheese for salmon and avocado salads in the cafeteria or Doritos for a bowl of Brazil nuts in the afternoon meeting, she recommends.
"Slowly phase out the unhealthy options as you gain more support from the staff," Sokhi says. "Offer healthy snacks such as fruits, baby carrots, celery sticks, nuts, and seeds in the office pantry. Replace regular and diet sodas with fruit juices, coconut water, and mineral water." The gradual transition will make it feel like less of a drastic change, which means it makes it easier for people to adjust to and adopt the healthier options.
Many employers show affection and appreciation for their employees by providing small niceties every day. Usually these include carb and sugar heavy bagels from the cafe down the street, or the oh-so-good-tasting but oh-so-bad-for-you Krispy Kreme doughnuts. While these foods may bring a smile to your employees’ faces, in the long run they do more harm than good.
"Definitely don’t reward employees with doughnuts and muffins for a job well done!" warns Sokhi. Instead of providing sweet treats to your employees on a daily basis, think about providing them with non-edible signs of affection. "If having a healthy workforce is a priority, reward them with gift cards to healthy eateries, smoothie bars, or non-food related items," she suggests, such as iTunes, Amazon, or cinema vouchers.
While weekly gift cards for your employees may sound costly, most employers will find doing this for five to 10 workers costs no more than providing that weekly supply of doughnuts for the same amount of people.
Being chained to the desk with only an hour's lunch break does no one any good. Sitting all day can kill you. And it doesn’t give you any opportunity to work off any calories workplace treats have added to your body, either. Employers should give their employees several 15-minute walking breaks (in addition to their lunch breaks) throughout the day, says Sokhi.
"Studies have shown that taking a break every 30-45 minutes and walking around the office is much healthier that sitting all day and then going to the gym at the end of the day," she notes. But the benefits aren’t only limited to our waistline and blood pressure. "Our brains can only focus on a task for a maximum of 45-60 minutes anyways," Sokhi says. "So it not only helps us physically, but also mentally and emotionally, to take a break, step away from the computer, hydrate, and come back with a fresh mind and body."
We live in an increasingly high-tech world, so why not go high tech for health at work? Though not for everyone, standing desks and workstations that allow you to walk and work are a hit in offices that have installed them.
"Treadmill workstations, standing desks, biking chairs, and balance-ball chairs are all great solutions for bringing health and fitness into the work environment," says Sokhi. "Optional treadmill or biking workstations situated in each area of the office allow employees to get up, move their bodies, and have a change of scenery to break up the monotony of the day. The more we move, the more oxygen gets pumped into our bodies and into our brains, and the more energetic we feel throughout the day."